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- Michael Stuhlbarg has starred recently in everything from “Steve Jobs” and “Arrival” to this season of “Fargo.”
- By the end of 2017, he’ll be in some of the most acclaimed movies of the year – “Call Me by Your Name,” “The Shape of Water,” and “The Post.”
- Stuhlbarg talks about being involved in these hits, and playing the memorable Arnold Rothstein role in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Every few years there seems to be one actor who shows up in a string of memorable movies, but you have no clue what his or her name is. That kind of actor is referred as a “That Guy” – the face is memorable but not the name – and Michael Stuhlbarg is the latest That Guy character actor to have his moment in the sun. Just look at his filmography since 2015: “Steve Jobs,” “Arrival,” “Doctor Strange,” “Miss Sloane,” and he kicked off this year by starring in the latest season of “Fargo.” But the best is yet to come. Stuhlbarg will finish things off this year with roles in some of the most acclaimed movies of 2017: Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” (now in theaters), Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” (opening December 1), and Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” (December 22). Business Insider chatted with Stuhlbarg about his recent run of hits, what it was like shooting the touching father-son scene in “Call Me by Your Name,” learning Russian in just a few weeks for his role in “The Shape of Water,” his regrets from “Boardwalk Empire,” and the choices an actor now must face in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against some of the biggest names in the industry. Jason Guerrasio: You’ve been in an incredible groove the last few years. Have you changed how you’ve gone about taking roles?
Michael Stuhlbarg: I have very little control of the kinds of things that come my way, so I’ve just tried to make the best decisions possible depending upon what comes along. There are artists out there that I have huge respect for, and in some cases projects involving them have come my way of late, so I’ve just leap at the opportunity. Whether it’s been Noah Hawley with “Fargo,” or Guillermo with “The Shape of Water,” or with Luca, or with Mr. Spielberg with “The Post.” I’m really just making the best out of what has presented itself as an opportunity.
Guerrasio: And along the way do you consciously have to grab a role here or there that’s a payday? To pay the bills?
Stuhlbarg: I’ve been really lucky in that some of the work that I’ve had of late has, um –
Guerrasio: Satisfied you both creatively and financially?
Stuhlbarg: Yes. It really has.
Guerrasio: That’s great!
Stuhlbarg: Yeah. It’s just how things have happened. But it’s always understandable when people have to survive. If an opportunity came along and something in my private affairs needed some funding, [laughs] perhaps I would make a different kind of choice. But, as I said, I haven’t had much to do with the kinds of things that have come my way.
Guerrasio: What do you mean by that exactly?
Stuhlbarg: Well, there’s timing that comes into it, in when something is going to be shot and whether you’re going to be available for it. And other than that the only other power I have is if I don’t want to be a part of something, I get to say “no.” So I guess what I mean is I had no control over Luca being interested in working with me in “Call Me By Your Name.” It just sort of came into my life. I’ve never really campaigned for a role because I’m not privy to that kind of information oftentimes. So I make decisions on what has been presented to me.
Guerrasio: What grabbed you about the Mr. Perlman character in “Call Me By Your Name?”
Stuhlbarg: Everything about this project grabbed me. The idea that I got to work with Luca. That James Ivory was involved. That we would shoot in the North of Italy. I love to travel for work. That was a wonderful part of this job. And the character itself and the deeply felt sentiments he gets to convey.
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Guerrasio: Speaking of that, there’s an amazing scene toward the end of the movie where your character has a heart-to-heart with his son. It’s a real highlight of the movie. Could you feel what you saw on the script, or while shooting it, that the scene could be a memorable moment in the movie?
Stuhlbarg: I think I had heard previous that it was a part of the novel that people also found to be quite moving. So, yes, going into it there was a certain gravity, I’ll say, to that text. We shot the film in chronological order so I certainly felt after being alone with that material for many weeks and trying it a million different ways that I was ready to convey it when we had to.
Guerrasio: Is that a scene where you don’t do a lot of takes? Because you’ve been with the material for so long I’m assuming you were very prepared.
Stuhlbarg: We spoke through it once for camera movements and then we did what ended up being a more emotional take first and then a more direct take afterwards. And Luca felt like he got what he needed after our two takes and we moved on.
Guerrasio: There’s all this chatter of Luca wanting to do a “Call My By Your Name” sequel, is that something that’s already been discussed with you?
Stuhlbarg: I just hear it through interviews. I’m in. I had an amazing time. He really loves these characters. I think it would be fascinating to explore them in different ways.
Guerrasio: Did you shoot this first or “The Shape of Water?”
Stuhlbarg: I shot “Call Me By Your Name” first. “The Shape of Water” was not long after.
Guerrasio: What’s great is in the span of weeks we’ll see you playing two very different characters, Mr. Perlman in “Call Me by Your Name” then Mr. Hoffstetler in “The Shape of Water.” What grabbed you about that character?
Stuhlbarg: Well, first that Guillermo knew who I was. [Laughs] He said he had written this part with me in mind. The style of that film sort of marries some magical realism and Cold War intrigue with a romance. It’s a very different kind of style. And I also had to speak Russian in it, which was a huge challenge.
Guerrasio: With the Russian, how far in do you go with trying to master the language?
Stuhlbarg: I try to go as deeply as I can given the time that I have. In this instance, there’s a process that you go through. I had to wait for the dialogue to be written into Russian, that took a while, then I worked with a tutor who helped me break down the nuances. One idea conveyed in English may be done in the reverse order in Russian. So there’s hearing the words, then articulating them, and phonetics, and then repetition, repetition.
Guerrasio: This takes weeks? Months?
Stuhlbarg: A lot of my stuff was up first so I didn’t have much time, so we’re talking weeks.
Guerrasio: Do you enjoy watching with an audience the movies you’re in?
Stuhlbarg: You never know what a movie is going to be the first time you see it. It’s been living in your head and your heart in particular ways. It’s always jarring and often times, with me, my appreciation will grow for it over time when I get to see it a number of times. But I do love to sit there and see people react to it. I love that part of what we get to do. They always end up laughing or crying in places you didn’t necessarily expect them to.
Guerrasio: One of your most memorable characters up to this point in your career is as Arnold Rothstein in “Boardwalk Empire.” I talked to Terence Winter once and he said he really regretted not being able to give the character a better send-off. Were you disappointed about that as well?
Stuhlbarg: Well, I had very little control over the situation. HBO had made a decision about ending the series a little bit earlier than I thought so they reduced the size of the final season and Terry said to me he wanted to utilize Rothstein in some way, like in flashbacks, and they just couldn’t find a way to do it. Of course, I would have loved to have had the opportunity to have given him a good send-off. And I loved the strange circumstance of his demise, which would have made a great part of an episode.
Guerrasio: Because in real life Rothstein died during a card game or something like that, right?
Stuhlbarg: Yeah. He went to the Park Central Hotel, which still exists in New York City. On the third floor. Shots rang out, we’re not sure where the shots came from, but it was supposedly related to the money he owed over a three-day poker game he was in the month before. He didn’t pay up because he thought the game was fixed. He never gave up who it was who shot him. He’s got the gangster code. He died a couple of days later. I had a great time learning about him.
Guerrasio: But it has to eat at you a little. That could have been its own standalone episode.
Stuhlbarg: Yeah. But you just have to let things go.
Guerrasio: You starred in the Netflix movie, “Gore,” which stars Kevin Spacey and is no longer being released due to the sexual harassment allegations against him. Going forward, do you now factor in sexual misconduct allegations into if you choose a role or not? What I mean is if an actor, director, or producer who has allegations against them is involved in a movie that you are up for a part in, do you now decline? Whether it be because of your own personal feelings or on just a business decision as you may encounter another experience like “Gore” where the movie doesn’t see the light of day.
Stuhlbarg: That’s a hard question. I think we all have to make our own decisions in regards to these things. I’d like to believe that given time I would make whatever decision I felt was the decision I needed to make. It’s an individual choice. I don’t know how I would answer that. [Pause] I’ll just say these are all individual decisions we all have to make by ourselves. I would have to weigh what was important to me at the time.